No such thing as bad press?


A recent NY Times article exposed the machinations of a sleazy guy who ran an online business that relied on links — positive, negative, whatever — to his web site that caused it to be promoted in Google search results. In fact, he found that by being nasty to his customers, his rankings improved.

The Time article implies that it was his customers’ negative comments that drove up his PageRank score, but Get Satisfaction (least one of the sites on which many of the comments were posted) claims that they mark links with the “rel=nofollow” attribute, which removes that link from PageRank considerations.

So why was he as successful as the article makes it seem?

Ranking algorithms

According to the Google Blog post prompted by this article, it was links from reputable web sites such as Bloomberg and the New York Times that drove up his PageRank score. To their credit, this particular article did not in fact link to the web site in question. Bloomberg, on the other hand, still refers to the site in question without a rel=nofollow attribute, thereby boosting it on Google. Here’s the relevant HTML fragment:

<p>According to court papers. eMalish is selling the
sunglasses through its <a href=”” title=”Open Web Site” rel=”external”></a> website.

In this perfect storm of actual negative publicity, Google announced that

… in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

Whose opinion?

But this opens a new can of worms, related to the nature of organic results. What does it mean that “in [Google’s] opinion” someone provides an “extremely poor experience”? What standards, benchmarks, appeal processes, etc. are in play here? I am not saying that the guy in the behind the scam that the NYTimes article described wasn’t doing nasty things; I am just wondering about the merits of Google (or any other search engine) becoming an arbiter of poor experience. Google bombing comes to mind.

One precedent for this behavior relates to pornography and other sexual images, for which all search engines provide user-controllable settings. But that approach is much more transparent than the “algorithmic solution” offered by Google as a remedy to this situation. While merchant quality and user feedback are reasonable metrics to manipulate for ranking purposes on a shopping site, it seems inappropriate to inject them into generic web search results.

SEO is a big challenge for search engines, as it represents a continuous arms race between the search engine and those who compete for the top few spots for specific queries. This behavior is fueled by precision-oriented searches, by the tyranny of the top two or three links. It causes a lot of resources to be devoted on both sides of the “conflict” but in the end, the result is a form of parity that benefits nobody.

Education as defence

So what can Google do? One possibility is to leverage the power of their users. Yes, that’s right, give the users the ability to control the system, and train them (over time) to use their skills and knowledge to improve their search experience.

What might this look like? The range of possible HCIR techniques to apply to information seeking is beyond the scope of this post, but one example comes to mind readily, particularly when it comes to combating unwanted SEO strategies. The technique is simple: give users the ability to change the ranking algorithm, and train them through examples in how to use this tool. Turning off PageRank, for example, and only using document content to find relevant documents, may sound radical, but the contrast between the two result sets might be a useful source of information for the searcher.

Perhaps in addition to expending effort to fighting pernicious SEO efforts, search engines can devote some energy to educating searchers and to building more interactive (cf. responsive) search interfaces that allow searchers to make more informed decisions rather than ceding that ability to The Algorithm.

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  1. I like the idea of education as defense. I’m an HCIR guy, I am required to by my own professional oath!

    But I think that educating web search users is an uphill battle. Things probably have to get a lot worse before education will be plausible as away to make them better. Users are people, and people are lazy when they feel they can afford to be.

  2. I concede that it is probably not in Google’s interest to do this. But I do think that in general, leveraging users’ domain expertise and helping them acquire search expertise will lead to better outcomes for all concerned: the systems will be more resilient to gaming, and users might actually get the results they want in non-trivial cases.

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